Sony NEX-C3 Image Quality
Sony NEX-C3 Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good overall accuracy and saturation, with mostly minor shifts in hue and intensity.
Saturation. Like many cameras, the Sony NEX-C3 pushes strong reds, dark blues, dark greens, purples and browns just a little, but actually undersaturates light greens and cyan tones slightly. The NEX-C3's overall default color saturation is oversaturated by 12%, which is a little higher than average for its class, but still pretty typical. You can of course tweak saturation to your liking, or choose a different color mode. See the comparison of available "Creative Style" image options below. Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.
Skin tones. Here, the Sony NEX-C3 did well, producing fairly natural-looking Caucasian skin tones. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Sony NEX-C3 did push cyan toward blue, red toward orange, orange toward yellow and yellow toward green, but shifts were relatively minor. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) With an average "delta-C" color error of 5.04 after correction for saturation, overall hue accuracy was better than average. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Sony NEX-C3 offers six preset "Creative Style" options. You can adjust contrast, saturation (except for B&W), and sharpness for any of the settings. The NEX-C3 also offers eleven creative filters called Picture Effects: Toy Camera, Pop Color, Posterization (Color), Posterization (B/W), Retro Photo, Soft High-key, Partial Color (Red), Partial Color (Green), Partial Color (Blue), Partial Color (Yellow), and High Contrast Mono. (These are not shown here.)
|Creative Style Options|
Mouse over the links above to see the effect of Creative Style presets on our Still Life target. Click on a link to load the full resolution image.
The Sony NEX-C3 has a total of seven saturation settings available, three above and three below the default saturation. This covers a pretty wide range of saturation levels. Saturation also had little effect on contrast, which is how it should work.
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows results with five of the seven saturation settings, including the default and the two extremes. Click on any thumbnail above, then click again to see the full-sized image.
|See full set of test images with explanations
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm cast with Auto, but good color with the Incandescent and Manual settings. Average exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was overly warm and orange with the Auto white balance setting and quite disappointing. Results with the Incandescent setting were quite good, though, just slightly warm and yellow. The Manual setting was very accurate, but some may prefer Incandescent because it conveys a touch more of the warmth of the original lighting. The 2,600 Kelvin setting which matches the color temperature of our lights resulted in a slightly cool, bluish image. The Sony NEX-C3 required +0.3 EV positive exposure compensation here, which is about average for this shot. (Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.)
Very good results under harsh lighting, with good handling of contrast, color, and exposure.
|Auto White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
Outdoors, the Sony NEX-C3 performed well. No exposure compensation was required to keep the model's face bright in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot. (Actually, default exposure was a bit too bright, but Dynamic Range Optimization which is enabled by default was turned off for these shots so we can't penalize the camera here.) The average among the cameras we've tested is +0.7 EV, so the NEX-C3 performed much better than average here. Contrast is a little high, as you might expect under such harsh lighting, but the camera does a pretty good job of holding onto detail in both the deep shadows and bright highlights, even without the help of DRO. Color balance was good with Auto white balance, perhaps just a hint cool. Default exposure was also quite good for our Far-field shot as well, with very few highlights blown, again with DRO disabled. Some very dark shadows in the leaves were lost, but the camera kept the main subject well exposed, so that's to be expected. The Far-field shot using Auto white balance had very good color. Overall, a very good performance in harsh lighting, especially considering DRO was off.
Very high resolution, 2,000 ~ 2,100 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, up to 2,200 lines from RAWs.
|Strong detail to
2,100 lines horizontal
|Strong detail to
2,000 lines vertical
|Strong detail to
2,200 lines horizontal
ACR converted RAW
|Strong detail to
2,100 lines vertical
ACR converted RAW
In-camera JPEGs of our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,100 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and about 2,000 lines per picture height in the vertical direction. Complete extinction of the pattern didn't occur until about 2,800 to 3,000 lines. Adobe Camera Raw was able to extract perhaps 100 lines more of resolution here from matching RAW files, but the Sony NEX-C3 did a good job holding on to high contrast detail at base ISO. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Good detail, though fine detail is a little soft, with some mild to moderate edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Moderate noise suppression visible in the shadows and areas of low contrast.
|Good definition of high-contrast
elements with some visible sharpening
artifacts. Fine detail is a little soft.
|Subtle detail: Hair
Noise suppression tends to blur
detail in areas of subtle contrast.
Sharpness. The Sony NEX-C3 captures fairly detailed images overall, though results are somewhat soft at default settings, despite using the very sharp Carl Zeiss 24-70mm F/2.8 SSM lens at f/8 for the shot above left. There are some mild to moderate edge enhancement artifacts on high-contrast subjects such as the larger tree branches in the image. Fine detail such as the smaller branches and pine needles show very little edge enhancement, but appear a touch mushy due to slightly over-zealous default noise reduction. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing colors and tones right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows moderate noise suppression in the darker areas of the model's hair. Quite a few low-contrast strands are smudged together, though higher contrast strands are still distinct. We saw similar results with fine detail in the pine needles being smudged. Still, pretty good results here considering the base ISO for this 16-megapixel APS-C sensor is 200 versus 100 for most others. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Sony NEX-C3 produces in-camera JPEGs with good detail, though fine, low-contrast detail is a touch soft. Quite a bit more detail can often be obtained from carefully processing RAW files with a good RAW converter, as can be seen below.
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking on the link will load the full resolution image. Examples include (from left to right): an in-camera Fine JPEG, the matching RAW file processed through Sony's Image Data Converter SR version 3.2 software at default settings, another conversion processed with IDC's sharpening turned up to +100 and its overshoot and undershoot sliders set to +50, and finally the same RAW file converted with Adobe Camera Raw 6.5, then sharpened in Photoshop using unsharp mask at 300% with radius 0.3.
As you can see, the Sony IDC version at default settings is somewhat softer than the in-camera JPEG. (Color rendering is also slightly different.) Increasing the sharpening settings gave the image a crisper look and helped extract a bit more detail, though noise reduction is still blurring fine detail. The Adobe Camera Raw conversion showed the most detail, but also revealed more noise. You can always turn up the luminance noise reduction (default of zero was used here), or process the files in your favorite noise reduction program or plugin if you want cleaner images. Bottom line: as is usually the case, the Sony NEX-C3 rewards RAW shooters with better detail than JPEGs when used with a good RAW converter, though its base ISO of 200 puts it at a slight disadvantage in terms of noise compared to models offering lower base ISO.
ISO & Noise Performance
Good noise vs detail performance with excellent results up to ISO 800, though slightly strong default luminance noise reduction.
Default High ISO Noise Reduction
|ISO 200||ISO 400||ISO 800|
|ISO 1,600||ISO 3,200||ISO 6,400|
The Sony NEX-C3's JPEG images are quite clean at ISO 200, though as mentioned previously some very fine, mostly low-contrast detail is lost to noise reduction already at base ISO. There's also some chroma noise visible in darker areas, as well as demosaicing errors in the hair above the mannequin's forehead, though that's pretty common these days and not really something to be concerned with. ISO 400 is similar, with just a slight increase in smudging. ISO 800 is slightly softer with a lot less chroma noise, though detail is still quite good. ISO 1,600 appears progressively noisier as well as softer, as you'd expect. This is also true for ISO 3,200, which shows another increase in noise, though fine detail is still not too bad. Detail takes larger hit at ISO 6,400 and especially at 12,800, where there's quite a bit of smudging as well as chroma noise in the form of purple and yellow blotches. Overall though, these are pretty good results considering the class and resolution offered. Unfortunately, Sony still doesn't offer much flexibility in noise reduction (only two levels: Auto and Weak. See below). As always, see the Print Quality section below for maximum recommended print sizes at each ISO.
A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, usually using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. We know this; if you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us. :-) The focus target position will have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.
High ISO NR = Weak
High ISO NR = Auto
Noise Reduction Oddity. As we saw in previous Sony APS-C models, the "Weak" high ISO NR setting smudges the red leave pattern in our Still Life target setting more than the "Auto" setting at higher ISOs. The Auto setting does reduce chroma noise compared to the Weak setting though (lower crops).
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
Very high resolution with excellent highlight and shadow detail. Very good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness. Special modes make it possible to capture low-light images without a tripod.
|0 EV||+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV|
Sunlight. The Sony NEX-C3 handled the deliberately harsh lighting in the test above very well. We preferred the default 0 EV exposure here, though it was a touch bright (in hindsight, we should have taken the outdoor exposure series down to -0.3 EV). Contrast is a little high, but shadow and highlight detail are both very good. Despite the bright appearance, relatively few highlights were blown in the model's shirt and face, though the red channel was clipped in some of the flowers as it often is, and in specular highlights where you'd expect clipping. Even fewer highlights were clipped with DRO enabled (see below). There were virtually no lost shadows, which is also very good. Still, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown above; it's better to shoot in the shade when possible. See below for results with Dynamic Range Optimization and High Dynamic Range features enabled.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
Dynamic Range Analysis
A key parameter in a digital camera is its Dynamic Range, the range of brightness that can be faithfully recorded. At the upper end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is dictated by the point at which the RGB data "saturates" at values of 255, 255, 255. At the lower end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is determined by the point at which there ceases to be any useful difference between adjacent tonal steps. Note the use of the qualifier "useful" in there: While it's tempting to evaluate dynamic range as the maximum number of tonal steps that can be discerned at all, that measure of dynamic range has very little relevance to real-world photography. What we care about as photographers is how much detail we can pull out of the shadows before image noise becomes too objectionable. This, of course, is a very subjective matter, and will vary with the application and even the subject matter in question. (Noise will be much more visible in subjects with large areas of flat tints and subtle shading than it would in subjects with strong, highly contrasting surface texture.)
What makes most sense then, is to specify useful dynamic range in terms of the point at which image noise reaches some agreed-upon threshold. To this end, Imatest computes a number of different dynamic range measurements, based on a variety of image noise thresholds. The noise thresholds are specified in terms of f-stops of equivalent luminance variation in the final image file, and dynamic range is computed for noise thresholds of 1.0 (low image quality), 0.5 (medium image quality), 0.25 (medium-high image quality) and 0.1 (high image quality). For most photographers and most applications, the noise thresholds of 0.5 and 0.25 f-stops are probably the most relevant to the production of acceptable-quality finished images, but many noise-sensitive shooters will insist on the 0.1 f-stop limit for their most critical work.
JPEG. The graph at right (click for a larger version) was generated using Imatest's dynamic range analysis for an in-camera Sony NEX-C3 JPEG file with a nominally-exposed density step target (Stouffer 4110). At the base ISO of 200 (the optimal ISO) with DRO and HDR settings turned off, the graph shows 10.2 f-stops of total dynamic range, with 7.84 f-stops at the "High" Quality level, with fairly gradual roll-offs at both the highlight and shadow ends of the tone curve. These are are very good results, in the same ballpark as the best performers to date, such as the Nikon D7000. Compared to its predecessor the NEX-3, the NEX-C3 scored slightly higher at the High Quality level (7.84 vs 7.44 f-stops), but slightly lower in total dynamic range (10.2 vs 10.6 f-stops). Note though that this measurement has a margin of error of about 1/3 f-stop, so differences of less than 0.33 can be ignored.
RAW. The graph at right is from the same Stouffer 4110 stepchart image captured as a RAW (.ARW) file, processed with Adobe Camera Raw using the Auto setting. (Slightly better results are likely possible with manually tweaking, but we weren't able to do much better.) As can be seen, the score at the highest quality level increased from 7.84 to 8.74 f-stops, which is almost a full f-stop improvement over the JPEG, while total dynamic range increased over one f-stop, to 11.4 from 10.2. Again, these results are very good, though not quite as good as the best APS-C sensors. (The Nikon D7000 for example managed 10.1 f-stops at the highest quality level, with 12.1 f-stops total dynamic range.) It's also worth noting here is that ACR's default noise reduction settings reduced overall noise somewhat (see the plot in the lower left-hand corner) relative to the levels in the in-camera JPEG, which would tend to boost the dynamic range numbers for the higher quality thresholds.
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Sony NEX-C3's contrast setting meets both challenges.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the NEX-C3 did a really excellent job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and holding nice detail in the shadows. Overall, very good results here.
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The table above shows five of the seven contrast setting, including the default and two extremes. It's pretty hard to evaluate small differences in contrast on small thumbnails like these, so click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.
One very nice feature of Sony's contrast adjustment is that it has very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. Sony did a good job here.
Dynamic Range Optimization is Sony's name for their dynamic range enhancement technology. DRO divides the image into small areas, analyzes the range of brightness of each area, and adjusts the camera's image processing parameters accordingly to make the best use of the available dynamic range. Auto DRO is enabled by default on the Sony NEX-C3. You can also set the level manually, from 1 ("weak") to 5 ("strong"), or turn it off. As one would expect, DRO is only available for JPEG files.
The above thumbnails and histograms show the effects of the various levels of DRO on our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with no exposure compensation. Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see from the thumbnails and associated histograms, the Auto DRO setting did a good job at toning-down highlights while boosting shadows a bit compared to Off. The manual settings tending to boost shadows more than Auto, and some of the lower settings actually clipped more highlights.
Above, you can see the effect of DRO settings on our Far-field shot. The default Auto setting produced a good exposure overall, despite the harsh lighting.
High Dynamic Range. The Sony NEX-C3's HDR mode takes three images in rapid succession, one nominally exposed , one underexposed, and one overexposed, then combines them into one high dynamic range JPEG automatically. Lighter areas from the underexposed image are combined in-camera with darker areas from the overexposed image to produce an image with increased dynamic range. The camera then saves a single composite image, as well as the nominally exposed image. The overlaid images are micro-aligned by the camera, but it can only correct for so much movement. If it can't micro-align successfully, an icon indicating HDR capture failed will appear. For best results, the subject should not move or blink, so it's not really intended for portraits. There is also a manual mode where you can select 1 EV ("weak") to 6 EV ("strong") difference in exposures.
Mouse over the links to load the associated thumbnail and histogram, and click on the links to visit the full resolution image. As you can see, the Auto setting produced an image that looked somewhat flat and unnatural with this scene. The higher the manual setting, the more highlights were toned-down, and shadows opened up.
Low Light. The Sony NEX-C3 performed well in our low light test, producing bright images down to the lowest light level we test at (1/16 fc) at all ISO settings. Like many cameras, the NEX-C3's metering system struggled a bit at very low light levels though, so we used manual exposure for these shots. Noise is very well controlled up to ISO 800, though as expected, at higher ISOs there are moderate to high amounts of fine luminance noise and some blotchy chroma noise. Auto white balance did a very good job here, producing a fairly neutral, just slightly cool color balance at all ISOs and light levels. There is just a hint of some horizontal banding at very high ISOs, but that's not uncommon. Some hot pixels can be seen especially with long exposure noise reduction turned off (the right-most column), but nothing out of the ordinary.
The camera's autofocus system was only able to focus on the subject down to just below the 1/4 foot-candle light level unassisted with the kit lens. However, the NEX-C3 was able to focus in complete darkness with its built-in focus assist lamp enabled.
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Thanks to their larger sensors, compact system cameras like the Sony NEX-C3 tend to do better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects. (A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
Great 20x30-inch prints from ISO 200 to 800; ISO 3,200 shots are good for a 13x19-inch print; ISO 12,800 makes a good 8x10.
ISO 400 shots also look good at 20x30 inches, though detail in reds is slightly soft.
ISO 800 images have quite surprising detail, still at 20x30 inches. Some ares are very slightly softer than ISO 400, like reds, but not at all bad.
ISO 1,600 shots are usable at 20x30, but shadows and red areas are softer. Reducing to 16x20, though, brings quality back to quite good.
ISO 3,200 images have good detail, but shadows start to show zones in places, and reds are softer still. Reduction to 13x19 inches helps with most of this, with very good detail.
ISO 6,400 files have excellent detail at 13x19 inches, but with noisy, inky shadows. Reduction to 11x14 helps, but the image has also darkened by this setting, as saturation has risen.
ISO 12,800 images exhibit sufficient high-contrast detail, but lower contrast detail is pretty soft at 11x14 inches, and shadows are rough. But printing at 8x10 makes a pretty decent image.
Overall, the Sony NEX-C3's images prove that this is a camera you can rely on in low light. It outputs 20x30-inch prints with great color and excellent detail from ISO 200 to 800, which is pretty impressive.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and the Canon Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)
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